October 3, 2023
Strategy and Innovation
Reading Time
6 min

CxO Series: What is the CIO's Role in Becoming A Transformational Leader?

Go from traditional CIO to transformational CIO. Learn what the role entails and the characteristics of being the change agent your company needs.
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The digital revolution is affecting momentous change in every area of business, but few roles have seen as much disruption as the CIO.Historically, the position had an internal focus with an emphasis on keeping the more technical aspects of operations from “leaking” into other areas.Now, when there’s increasing need for all CxOs to embrace innovative technology within their sphere of operations, CEOs are turning to their CIOs for advice on how to profitably move forward with digital transformation efforts.There’s been such a shift in how a CIO needs to operate that some companies have spun off new C-level titles to meet the demands.Only 19% of digital transformations are being led by CIOs. 34% are given over to CMOs while CEOs take the lead on 27%.Existing CIOs who resist their expanding responsibilities can find themselves pushed towards the IT margins while newcomers with marketing or strategy experience are given oversight of digital projects.A true CIO needs more than strategic knowledge to succeed, though.One of a CIO’s core functions is explaining complex technology in such a way that those without engineering degrees can understand the potential value added.In order to do this, there must be a foundation of technical familiarity that’s outside the scope of a non-technical degree.Those without it can fall prey to adopting immature technology, insufficiently committing to new procedures, and contributing to a conflicting snarl of new and legacy equipment.The fact remains, however, that a CIO has to alter their perspective to cope with digital initiatives.No longer can they limit their interest to technology; they need to understand how that technology will impact existing workflows and what needs are going unmet. Ed Featherston, VP Principal Architect of Cloud Technology Partners, says, “Tech is not the destination, it’s the vehicle. Figure out where you are going first.”A growing number of CIOs- 45% on a 2016 survey- describe themselves as transformational. While every CIO innovates differently, there are some common characteristics that define what it means to be “transformational”.

Focus on Strategy

There’s an outdated point of view that CIOs shouldn’t concern themselves with larger business concerns and that their “place” is solely to implement technology as directed by the CEO/CXO.That simply won’t work in a digitally driven company. CEOs need technical expertise in the planning phase if digital initiatives are going to succeed.To that end, CIOs need to be active participants in the boardroom. It’s not enough to report on how IT is running and then wait for questions.CIOs should contribute to discussions on marketing, security, data strategy, and any other area of operations where technology can increase efficiency.

Lead with a Data-Driven Approach

Nearly two thirds of senior executives base major decisions on instinct or experience rather than facts.52% have ignored or minimized data they didn’t understand, and less than half of available relevant information is used in actual decision making.Transformational CIOs embrace their power to change this trend.They actively advocate for data-driven decision making throughout their organization.This should include the creation of a system to make data from enterprise analytics more accessible to non-technical CxOs.

Believe in a Customer-Centric Philosophy

The end goal of technological innovation should be profit, and the path to profit is ensuring customer satisfaction.Study after study has shown that customers will pay more for good service and remain with companies they trust to provide it even when prices fall elsewhere.CIOs are an integral part of providing that service, yet traditionally they rarely considered the customer directly.Instead they thought in projects: update the customer complaint department, fix these problems with the website, etc.

Be Proactive

Traditionally, CIOs oversaw a list of requirements and requests for improvements generated by others.They were able to suggest new technology, but it wasn’t common for them to have input into the larger enterprise strategy. Because of this, they tended to be very reactive- find a problem, fix it, and move on.There is no room in the digital revolution for CIOs with a reactive philosophy. Things move so quickly that small issues can quickly snowball into large ones.Dealing with the fallout of mistakes is much more expensive than fixing systems that lead to those mistakes.

"The role of the traditional CIO is in decline. As more organizations recognize the strategic value that technology plays, the demand for the CIO shifts from traditional to transformational." - Tim Crawford, CIO Strategic Advisor at AVOA.

Transformational CIOs don’t wait for things to break before addressing them. They go out among the departments and listen to the user-level view of the company, such as what systems aren’t working (and which ones do) and what information or capabilities departments wish they had.They also scan for promising innovations with a mindful eye to their company’s needs.Being aware of upcoming advancements helps assess how early they can adopt new technology, and early adoption is becoming critical to gaining competitive advantage.

“More than ever in IT, you can’t wait to watch the next thing happen. You need to be in the middle of it,” says Gerri Martin-Flickinger, the former CIO of Adobe.


Be Willing to Share Data

In the early days of technology IT departments kept data sequestered for protection from both external bad actors and well-meaning corruption from unskilled internal users.The average level of technological savviness has increased since then, but many IT departments still tend to be miserly with data.Transformational CIOs recognize that data silos are massive roadblocks for data science initiatives and other technological advancements.They work to allow as much access as security and regulatory requirements allow. The goal should be to say yes to internal information requests absent a compelling reason why.This empowers innovation and experimentation among departments and fosters an environment where people feel their contributions are valued.

Demonstrate an Eye for Business

Most of all, CIOs have to demonstrate their value to CEOs as business partners, not just IT leaders.43% of CEOs view their IT department- including CIOs- as service providers rather than potential partners in driving innovation.Only 27% of CIOs report that they have this kind of relationship within their enterprise.To gain the cooperation of the CEO and CXO, CIOs need to demonstrate an understanding of how technology can drive business.

Ralph Loura at Rodan + Fields says: “The mode of CIOs in the past was to keep your head down, deliver what you’ve promised, and stay out of trouble. But that approach doesn’t work anymore. If you want to have an impact in your company, have a point of view that sometimes challenges the status quo but do the work required to make that point of view an informed one.”

Parting Thoughts

Digital transformation isn’t optional for companies that want to remain relevant, and CIOs are the partners CEOs need to make that change- so long as they’re willing to undergo transformations themselves.By learning more about the business side and taking an operations-centered view of innovation, CIOs can become powerful agents of change within their organizations.To read more about how CIOs can fit into the company's business strategy, read CEO, CIO, COO Join Forces to Embrace a Digital Transformation.

If you're ready to be the transformational agent your company needs, reach out to Concepta today.


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